How did Ben Elton's "The Wright Way" get it so wrong?

The old comedy adage says that if there's nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Perhaps this explains why <em>The Wright Way</em> is just one big knob gag, then.

Ben Elton’s new sitcom, The Wright Way, was likely doomed from the moment the first scathing review went online. Coming from a widely-disliked figure like Elton - the turncoat, the sell-out - its reputation preceded it, other critics bundled on, and pretty soon everybody knew for certain that it was going to be a stinker. (At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists its genre as “Anti-comedy”.) The Twitter LOL-vultures circled.

As fun as the Twitter competition for the most cutting put-down was, there’s also reason to be slightly wary of this feedback loop of mass instant criticism. While online word-of-mouth can propel slow-burn, boxset-ready series to hit status, the real-time rush-to-judgement also has the potential to condemn shows before they’ve had a chance to find their feet.

Sitcoms are especially vulnerable to this; they’re notoriously hard to get right straight away. Test audiences hated the first episode of Friends; Men Behaving Badly had to lose its star and move to a different broadcaster before audiences embraced it; Blackadder didn’t reach its comic potential until they brought in a bold young talent called Ben something-or-other to shake up the second series. Quite simply, it’s a flat-out foolhardy and ignorant act to pass judgement on a sitcom’s true worth just a few episodes in.

Unless it’s The Wright Way, of course, because it’s utter, utter crap.

The second episode landed with a sickly thud on our televisions last night, and might have - somehow – managed to be worse than the first episode. A shockingly lazy calamity of a show, its many, many superficial failures serve only as a light and fluffy distraction from the vast, gaping flaws at its core. (The central character, David Haig’s health and safety officer Gerald Wright, is a crudely Frankensteined composite of Victor Meldrew and Gordon Brittas, who splits his time evenly between furiously railing against the petty annoyances of modern life and taking great pleasure in causing the petty annoyances of modern life. This is because Ben Elton only had so many jokes to go round and nobody could be bothered to tell him that it made absolutely no sense.)

Two episodes in, we can now start to sense the shape of the show’s broader trends. For example, some of the characters have catchphrases! David Haig’s catchphrase is “don’t get me started”. His daughter’s lesbian lover’s catchphrase is “this is such a YouTube moment” (because that is totes what all the young people say). Mina Anwar’s catchphrase is shouting.

If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.

In what is clearly intended to be the series’ signature comic riff, each episode features a scene in which Wright constructs a series of tortuous acronyms on a whiteboard, unwittingly spelling out a rude phrase. These phrases, it turns out, also handily serve as the show’s epitaph:

As these demonstrate, above all else, the show hews tightly to the comic rule that if there’s nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Penis. Penis. Words that mean penis. Things that look like penises. Penis. At one point a character talks about vaginas, just to keep the audience guessing. Then back to penis. Penis. Penis acronyms. Actions that look like a character is using his penis. Penis.

Now: David Haig is a fine comic actor, and both he and his groin are veterans of many classically bawdy British comedies. His is a grizzled, old-timey groin that’s been the punchline to many a set-up, the prat of many falls, the penis ex machina that plugged a hundred plot holes. Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, this groin has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And yet, there was a moment last night, as Haig’s battle-hardened, farce-calloused groin wearily humped a dustbin for the second time that episode, when - if you were watching in HD, perhaps - you could just about see his groin embracing the inevitability of death.

This sense of resignation in the face of doom pervades the whole shooting match. Elton could perhaps be forgiven for having lost his hunger, living as he does in a giant fort made of money and Queen CDs. But everywhere you look there are signs that nobody involved in the show gave much of a toss. Characters drinking out of mugs that are obviously empty. Haig spending most of a scene sitting at table where his face isn’t properly lit. Camera placements that can’t quite remember who was supposed to be in shot. And a dead-eyed cast, mechanically mugging their way through the script in the hope that if they just do everything loudly enough, their agents might return their children unharmed.

(My personal favourite is Beattie Edmonson’s increasingly desperate expressions while hanging around in the back of shots, trying to find something plausible to do with her face as she waits for her next line to stagger into view. Seriously, try re-watching it with the sound off, just focusing on her. It’s such a YouTube moment.)

So, bad show is bad. What of it? The problem here is not so much that somebody made a lousy TV show, it’s what they didn’t make instead. TV commissions are a zero-sum game - there are only so many pilots that can be ordered, only so many series made. And there are too many young writers desperate for a chance to try things out, to learn and fail and get better, for the BBC to be easily forgiven for shovelling time and money towards complacent, will-that-do dross like The Wright Way.

There’s no formula to comedy. Any commissioning policy worth a damn will produce as many failures as successes. But at least fail by trying.

This is why the Twitter hate-watchalong, entertaining as it was, was doomed to run out of steam long before episode two was halfway through. The Wright Way is not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s simply exhausting. How can you work up the energy to mock something for missing the target when nobody involved seems to have cared enough to even aim for it? The sheer number of ungiven fucks have a profoundly enervating, soul-sapping quality. It’s like J K Rowling’s Dementors, sucking all the joy from a room. There’s just nothing funny left to say.

Penis.

 

The cast of Ben Elton's "The Wright Way", making serious faces while wearing hard hats. Photograph: BBC
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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.